Strategic Planning for Fundraising: Start with the Goal!

Strategic Planning for Fundraising: Start with the Goal!

If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.

Why are we doing this event? Because we did it last year.

Why do we send out an appeal letter in October? Because that’s what we’ve always done.

Why are our $250 donors called “Patrons”? Why do we host an annual golf tournament? Why do we write notes on renewal letters?

Someone wise once told me that every once in a while, instead of trying to climb faster or smarter or more efficiently, it’s important to step back and make sure your ladder is still leaning on the right wall.

I’ve written about this topic before (See Everything Starts with Strategic Planning). Here’s an excerpt:

The problem is that our organizational systems all support 12-month thinking. The annual cycle: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter; Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, July the 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas; prairie burns , field season, harvest, and easement monitoring; newsletters, membership renewals, summer events, and the fall appeal – even birthdays and anniversaries – all in cycles of 12 months.

The problem with 12-month thinking is that it limits what we believe we can do. What always was, is. What is, will always be. When do you make time for longer term goals, longer term vision – especially in fundraising? The answer is and must be Strategic Planning. Everything starts with the Strategic Plan.

So here’s the deal: if you complete your strategic plan and the resources you need are resources that you already have in hand or that you can reasonably expect by continuing your current activities, you’re all good – you can stop reading now.

This post is about what happens when that is not true – when your strategic vision is larger than your available resources. In fact, it’s larger than what you could reasonably expect by continuing your current activities. It’s about what happens if what you need to do will take longer than a 12-month cycle to figure out.

What then?

The first and most important step you can take is to quantify what your strategic plan needs from fundraising. Please note that this is not an exact science – you’re after a ballpark figure. The answer will come in two parts – capital funds and operating capacity.

Capital funds are funds that you only need to raise once. They might be needed to purchase a new preserve or establish a management endowment. They might be needed to fund a study or a planning process. They might be needed to purchase equipment such as a computer server or a stewardship vehicle. You get the idea.

Operating capacity is money that you need to raise every year. For example, you might determine that to make progress toward your strategic goals, you need to add two new staff positions. Between their salaries, fringe, office space, travel, and so on, you might need to add $120,000 to your annual budget. Every year.

Avoid the temptation to christen a new strategic planning effort until this critical last step is completed. Ask yourself and your organization:

  • What’s it going to take to do all this wonderful stuff?
  • What’s the necessary capital investment?
  • What will our organization need to look like five years from now if we are successful?
  • How much will that cost – what will our annual budget need to be?


Once you know how much the strategic plan needs you to raise, you can also quantify how big the GAP is between that and what you’re raising now.

Please note that some suspension of disbelief is necessary at this point. Don’t allow yourself to say “We’ll never fill that gap. We don’t have the community, donors, staff, volunteers, resources, skills…..

Instead ask “How?” How will we fill that gap? If we can’t get there right away, how do we start moving in that direction? And – what resources do we need to bring to bear now that will help us get there?

For capital fundraising, we typically look to foundation grants and/or major gift development with individuals. Neither will happen overnight. If the numbers are large enough, will you need to invest in development staff? Board involvement? Training?

For increased operating support, you can get some traction from shoring up your renewal efforts or from focusing more attention on asking members to increase their giving. But more often than not, increased operating support will come from increasing the number of individuals giving money every year – and that almost always means direct mail. Recruitment of new donors loses money the first year. It can and does break even shortly after that and by the third year, there is a very real return. But how will you find that investment money?

And that’s not even the really hard part – presumably you already have a full -time job. Where will you find the time to take on new strategies – and particularly those that might take two or three years to bear real fruit?

My default litmus test has always been time spent with major gift prospects – you may have others. How and where do I spend my time now? If I stop doing X and apply that same time cultivating major gift prospects instead, will I be in a better place in five years? Frankly, the answer is almost always Yes. Obviously, we have other options to cover current activities: volunteers, contract staff, consultants, and other outsourced labor. But without the heat coming from strategic planning, will you be exploring those options?

Strategic planning is about looking at the horizon – as far out as you can see – then choosing a direction and setting goals for how far you want to get in the next five years. A step that is often overlooked is quantifying the resources those goals will require – both time and money. Once they have been quantified, you need to apply the same strategic process to fundraising. Given the fundraising needs, will the path we’re on get us there? What are the alternatives? Choose a direction and set goals for how far you want to get in the next five years.

About four years ago, I led a local organization through a process very similar to the one I just described. As the reality of the situation began to sink in, there were a lot of blank stares around the table. The Board would be called upon to give more and to do more – both. New investment was needed to reach out more effectively and recruit new members. But faced with the alternative of down-sizing their strategic vision, the Board set some appropriate benchmarks, adopted some contingency plans if they weren’t hit, and got to work.

As it turned out, they’ve hit every benchmark since.





Photo by Jeremy Bishop courtesy of

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